DiAnna Schenkel is a law school graduate who once ran on the Democratic ticket for her city council. She voted twice for Barack Obama. A 59-year-old suburbanite in North Carolina, she worries about her Black son-in-law being racially profiled by the police, pulled over and beaten or worse.
The portrait of a Biden voter?
No, Ms. Schenkel, who is white, is a confirmed supporter of Donald J. Trump. She voted for him enthusiastically four years ago after becoming disillusioned with the Obama presidency, and plans to vote for his re-election. At the same time, she is wary of expressing her politics openly because she believes that stereotypes of what she calls “Trumpers” like herself, as portrayed on social media and in conversations, are smug and spiteful.
“There’s so many people throwing down really inflammatory words: Racist. Xenophobic,” she said of the way people regard Trump supporters. “And these inflammatory words carry emotions. It just pivots people to where they’re not going to even tolerate someone for supporting that person. You’re automatically put on trial and you have to testify why you believe what you believe.”
As Mr. Trump takes center stage at the Republican National Convention this week, he maintains a core of rock-solid supporters like Ms. Schenkel who believe he is fighting in America’s best interests and has achieved many of his goals — which are their goals too. He has aggressively cultivated these voters over the last few months with scathing criticism of vandalism that has occasionally arisen from mostly peaceful protests calling for racial justice, and by boasting that, pre-coronavirus, he had built an economy second to none.
For Democrats and many independents, Mr. Trump has shattered the norms of presidential behavior with racist tweets and divisive policies; his use of federal agencies to advance his personal interests; and, perhaps most important, his detachment from managing the pandemic, which has killed more than 175,000 Americans.
The revulsion toward the president that his opponents feel has colored how many regard Mr. Trump’s supporters. Portrayals of his base, these supporters say, are often distilled into a caricature: that they are all white bigots, in thrall to an authoritarian leader and lost in a fog of fact-denial.
In lengthy interviews over the last several weeks, a cross-section of Trump voters said they believed he had succeeded on issues like hardening the Southern border, appointing conservative judges, taking on China and putting “America first.” Many said the president’s grievances were their grievances, too. They believed kneeling during the national anthem was un-American, and they were appalled at what they viewed as liberals’ minimizing of violence that at times grew out of the protests over the killing of George Floyd.
At the same time, Trump voters dismissed as irrelevant aspects of the president’s behavior that critics say make him historically unfit for office. All politicians lie, many said; as for the president’s suggestion that he might not accept the election results, supporters said voters should judge his actions, not his loose talk or tweets.
“I didn’t vote for Trump because I wanted him to be my best friend,” Ms. Schenkel said. “I wanted to make a change and a difference.”
“If he thinks it’s the right thing, he doesn’t care who’s going to get mad at him,” she added. “I think he’s very misunderstood.”
A longtime resident of Minnesota, Ms. Schenkel moved with her husband last year to North Carolina to be closer to their grandchildren. She found work using her law degree in a bank loan department, while her husband babysits.
She grades the president highly on having met his promises, including slowing the flow of undocumented immigrants and building a strong economy before the virus struck.
Other Trump supporters outlined myriad reasons for wanting to re-elect him, ranging from the pragmatic, like a new job made possible by the administration’s policies, to a gut-level attraction to his hard-nosed personality. His supporters related “aha” moments in their upbringing when they realized they were conservatives, which they spoke of as nonnegotiable beliefs woven into their identity, like opposition to abortion.
Joseph Karlovich of Jacksonville, Fla. is also a former Obama voter who abandoned the Democrats for Mr. Trump. Mr. Karlovich, 33, an engineer, explained that he was working for a government contractor on a Navy missile system in 2015 when the news cycle became consumed with Hillary Clinton’s private email server, which had held some classified information.
He takes the president’s bullying outbursts and lying with a grain of salt. “He’s selling a pitch, for the most part,” he said. “My dad’s a salesman. For me, it’s the same with all politicians. They’re trying to get you to buy in, and you have to do your own research.”
When Shelley Taylor was 17 in rural Ohio, she crossed a teachers’ picket line at her high school and told the school board the teachers were selfishly depriving seniors of credits they needed to graduate. Supporters of the teachers boycotted her parents’ hardware store, she recalled. The episode shaped her political identity as a conservative.
Now a resident of Deltona, Fla., Ms. Taylor, 59, still considers herself outspoken, and she was drawn in four years ago by that same quality in Mr. Trump. “I liked how he was very straight up,” she said. “I laughed at his demeanor. I thought, all right, we got a guy here who’s going to whoop some butt on these politicians.”
Ms. Taylor believes the president’s enemies, including Democrats who she says behave like “spoiled little kids,” have tried to undermine him from Day 1. Among the developments she said were being manipulated to damage the president are the coronavirus outbreak and the protests after the death of Mr. Floyd, a Black man killed in the custody of white police officers in Minneapolis.
“We’ve had more cops gun down white people than Black people,” she said. “Do we throw a fit if a white guy gets killed by the cops? No.”
“I’m not racist,” she said. “I’m not. I have all kinds of friends. There’s good cops and there’s bad cops, I see that. We just need to weed them out. I think this George Floyd incident got escalated to be ridiculous.”
“He was doing such a great job,” Ms. Taylor said of the president. “They couldn’t impeach him. Everything was going good and wham, all of a sudden, we got a freaking virus.”
Ms. Taylor and others blamed the news media’s coverage of the virus, complaining that the media is being hypocritical when it condemns unmasked crowds in bars but not unmasked protesters in Portland and Seattle. They echoed a Gallup poll from March that showed Republicans’ trust in the media’s response to the pandemic was lower than for any institution.